Incendies (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

Incendies is not just the story of a brother and sister searching for their mother’s past, any more than Oedipus Rex is just the story of political succession in ancient Thebes.

 

The title Incendies translates as "scorched," an apt description because war in this film sweeps through the lives of the characters like a fire raging through a forest. You may feel a bit scorched yourself after viewing it, although just as a forest fire creates the necessary conditions for the emergence of new life so Incendies ends on a note of hope, suggesting that the cycle of hatred can be broken.

Watching Incendies is a harrowing experience but one that is worthwhile. In fact, it’s necessary to have this experience in order to understand what director Dennis Villeneuve and playwright Wajdi Mouawad, whose play of the same name forms the basis for the film, have to say. Mouawad and Villeneuve are aiming high and Incendies is not just the story of a brother and sister searching for their mother’s past, any more than Oedipus Rex is just the story of political succession in ancient Thebes.

In the present time, Canadian siblings Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) Marwan have been summoned to hear the reading of their deceased mother Narwal’s (Lubna Azabal) will in the office of the notary Jean Lebel (Rémy Girard). Much to their surprise they are given two tasks that must be completed before a headstone can be placed on their mother’s grave: delivering sealed envelopes to their father and brother. Since they believe their father to be long dead and had no idea they had a brother at all, this seems like a bad joke or a riddle without solution, and Simon in particular reacts angrily to what seems to be just one more of his mother’s eccentricities.

But Lebel insists that the wishes of the dead must be honored, so the quest to carry out the conditions of their mother’s will sends Jeanne and Simon on an odyssey across her homeland, an unnamed country in the Middle East (the history they discover matches up with that of Lebanon, where Mouawad was born). Gradually Jeanne and Simon discover fragments of Narwal’s past—which include political activism, imprisonment, rape, torture, and many of the other horrors that war can inflict upon the vulnerable. Villeneuve skillfully unfolds these revelations, jumping back and forth in time, so we come to understand Narwal’s life at the same time as do Jeanne and Simon.

The solution to the riddles Jeanne and Simon have been set is right out of Greek tragedy, or perhaps grand opera, and it’s one whose true impact can only be understood if, like Jeanne and Simon, you discover it for yourself. Yet it’s also entirely believable because if you pay any attention at all to international news you must know that the suffering of countless anonymous women during armed conflict is at once too horrifying to recount in any kind of detail and also too commonplace to hold the average reader’s attention for any length of time. Mass rapes in Darfur/Bosnia/Rwanda/The Democratic Republic of the Congo—the list goes on and the attention wanders. The story of one victim, revealed little by little, has far more impact than any set of statistics.

Villeneuve expertly handles the tricky balance between telling a straightforward, naturalistic story of one family and creating an allegory whose meaning goes far beyond the events of the surface narrative. Andre Turpin’s sweeping cinematography helps give the story an epic feel, as does the larger-than life performance of Lubna Azabal. Incendies won 8 Genie Awards (given by the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television) and was a finalist for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. It’s an easy game to second-guess the Academy, particularly in this category, so I’ll just say that Incendies would also have been a worthy winner, and that holds true for any year in recent memory. | Sarah Boslaugh

 

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